Published Feb. 23, 2006.
HUNTINGTON -- Sharon Ruffin can hear her late husband's voice as if he's right next to her, expressing his feelings about the Marshall University movie.
"I can hear him saying up in heaven, 'They finally did it.'" she said.
Nate Ruffin, a Marshall defensive back, missed the football team's game against East Carolina in Greenville, N.C., due to an injury and didn't make the trip. He helped bring players together in 1971 when the football program resumed after the Nov. 14, 1970, plane crash. The chartered jet crashed just short of Tri-State Airport, killing all 75 aboard.
Despite his death in October 2001 at age 51, Nate Ruffin's spirit lives with everyone he touched, just as his deceased teammates' spirits lived with him, his wife said. She recalls him talking in his sleep sometimes -- to his teammates lost in the crash, he would tell her without hesitation.
Sharon Ruffin -- who last August moved back to Huntington after living in Vienna, Va., a Washington, D.C., suburb -- said she was informed about the film around that time. While she hasn't seen the script, she has met with Mary Viola, associate producer of Warner Bros. Pictures, the studio making the film. Production is scheduled to begin around March 20 in Huntington, and cast members already include actors Matthew McConaughey, Matthew Fox and David Strathairn.
"He's not here, but yet he is," Sharon Ruffin said of her late husband. "His voice will be heard regardless."
She said interest among family and friends is intense regarding who will portray Nate Ruffin, one of the film's key roles. She said friends of her grown children are hoping for actor Denzel Washington or Usher, perhaps best known as a recording artist.
"They're asking every day, 'Who's going to play Dad?' " Sharon Ruffin said her 26-year-old daughter, Shante, asks. "People (also) ask me, 'Sharon, how much longer is it going to be?' I say, 'I have to wait in line like everyone else.' "
It doesn't matter much to her who plays the role -- as long as the actor conveys her husband's giving spirit. Aside from his connection with the Marshall University football program, Nate Ruffin was well known in the corporate world.
At the time of his death, he was vice president of community relations with The Freedom Forum, an Arlington, Va.-based foundation "dedicated to free press, free speech and free spirit for all people," according to the organization's Web site. Nate Ruffin also was employed with the Gannett Co., having served as former human resources director with The Herald-Dispatch.
Sharon Ruffin said her husband had a way with people that was beautiful to behold.
"He had a way of moving people," she said. "It was a natural thing."
Even as leukemia ravaged his body, Nate Ruffin didn't dwell on the pain. Sharon Ruffin vividly recalls one of the last days of her husband's life -- a day he felt well enough to go fishing, his favorite hobby. But there was a young boy who desperately needed a bone marrow transplant, and Nate Ruffin helped rally for the boy's cause.
"He gave up his last day to fish, but he was fishing for someone else," Sharon Ruffin said.
Smiling and her face brightening, she shares many qualities that made her husband memorable. The couple met in 1975 at the former Nick's News in downtown Huntington and married two years later.
"He always said I was the one who chased him down," she said. "He followed me home."
She recalls a flower delivery at her home during her husband's illness. A man stood at the door with a bouquet of roses -- an assortment of vibrant colors that was commemorative of the Ruffins' marriage.
"We had a rainbow wedding," Sharon Ruffin said, referring to the multi-colored ceremony.
She also remembers Nate getting on his knees as they recited Shakespeare together -- one of their favorite pastimes.
The couple has two other grown children, Ryan, 24, of Charleston, W.Va.; and Carmen, 36, of Pittsburgh. Shante lives in Huntington.
Sharon Ruffin, who grew up in Huntington, said she moved back just before her mother, Virnilla Layne, was diagnosed with lymphoma.
"I think it was God's timing," she said.
Sharon Ruffin said she also stays in touch with Nate's parents, J.T. and Idella Barnes of Quincy, Fla., who are excited about the movie. She also thinks about "Momma Cherry," Nate's late grandmother who helped raise him.
"Momma Cherry would say, 'Boy, you finally made it," Sharon Ruffin said, referring to the Marshall movie. "I think he'd be totally amazed at what's going on."